Spanish Art and Architecture

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON-DEMAND > Cultures and Civilizations      

Spanish art reflects the variety of Spain itself. Spain is an ancient land, divided by mountain ranges. It has been home to many groups of people with extremely different origins, speaking different languages and following different religions.


The earliest art found in the Iberian Peninsula, where Spain is located, dates from the Old Stone Age. About 13,000 B.C., ice-age hunters painted on the ceiling of a cave at Altamira on the northern coast. They painted magnificent images of buffalo and other animals in vivid natural colors.

From 1100 to 400 B.C., people from Greece, Phoenicia, and Carthage settled in Spain. Their art, as well as that of Syria and Egypt, is often mixed with central European forms in native Iberian art of this period. Objects of high quality in bronze, glass, gold, and stone have been found. These include the large figures, presumably goddesses, called damas ("ladies") in Spanish. Most famous are the Dama de Baza and the Dama de Elche (both about 400 B.C.).

The Romans came to Spain about 218 B.C. Over the course of the next one hundred years, Roman legions brought much of the Iberian peninsula into the empire. Remains of Roman walls, bridges, and aqueducts (structures for transporting water) can be found in every corner of Spain. Greek and Roman sculptures, mosaics, sarcophagi (coffins), jewelry, glass, and everyday objects have also been found in large numbers.

Christians became the most important group in Spain after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in A.D. 325. But there was also a Jewish population. Increasing political weakness in the western Roman Empire led to invasion by Germanic tribe. This included the Visigoths, who entered Spain in the 400's. The Visigothic contribution to the arts in Spain was limited. Like other Germanic tribes, the Visigoths made wonderful jewelry. Their buildings were influenced by those of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire. Visigothic builders also introduced a new architectural form: the horseshoe arch. It would become a basic element in later Spanish architecture.

Moorish Art

The Moors came originally from North Africa. They invaded Spain in 711 and ruled much of southern Spain for several centuries. The Moors followed the Islamic faith. But their rulers allowed the existing Jewish and Christian communities to function. The rulers of the expanding Christian kingdoms in northern Spain also often allowed other religions to exist. The resulting conviviencia ("living together") produced a rich multi-ethnic culture. The cities of Córdoba, Seville, and Toledo became important world centers of art, literature, and scholarship.

Early Period

The best-known monument of early Spanish Islamic art is the Great Mosque at Córdoba. The mosque was begun in 786 by Abd al-Rahman I, who had established a kingdom in Córdoba in 756. The mosque is essentially a great covered area for group prayer with a courtyard outside. Its architecture blends many ancient influences. Rows of arches hold up the immense roof (covering almost 3 acres, or 1.2 hectares, of floor). They are derived from the Roman aqueduct at Mérida, including the use of alternating color in the stones of the arches. (The horseshoe arches themselves are Visigothic in origin.) The mosaics of the mihrab, a decorated niche indicating the direction to Mecca, are Byzantine in inspiration, as are many of the capitals (tops of columns). Other capitals show Greek and Roman influences. The building became the starting point for later Islamic architecture in Spain.

Middle Period

The kingdom of Córdoba came to an end about 1000. Islamic Spain broke up into a number of small kingdoms called Taifas. These increasingly lost territory to the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain. As the northern kingdoms expanded, Christians who had been living under Islamic rule moved north. They brought with them a style of art and architecture, known as Mozarabic. It combined European and Arabic influences.

The Taifas also suffered a series of invasions from Africa to the South. One of them brought the Almohads. The Almohads created a strong kingdom centered at Seville from the 1100's until 1248. Few examples survive of Almohad architecture. It featured brick buildings with elaborate carved stone decoration and glazed colored tiles. Of the great mosque erected in Seville by the Almohad emperor Yacoub al-Mansur in the 1190's, only the patio and minaret still stand. (The minaret is now the bell tower of Seville's Christian cathedral.) The importance of Almohad art is nevertheless very great, for this style was passed on to the Christian conquerors as mudéjar art. In fact, what one thinks of as the most typically "Moorish" building in Seville--the Alcázar, or royal palace--was largely built by Christian kings in the mudéjar style.

Late Period

The fall of Seville in 1248 left only the southeastern corner of Spain in Islamic hands. Nevertheless, a great kingdom was built by the Nasrid dynasty at Granada from the 1300's until its final defeat by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. The Nasrid princes erected the Alhambra. The Alhambra is a fortified palace with beautiful gardens set into the mountain foothills overlooking Granada. With their intricately carved decorations and colorful tile work, the buildings of the Alhambra seem like a vision from the Arabian Nights. In addition to its beautiful architecture, the Alhambra is filled with pools and fountains, exotic plants, and fruit trees. It is a true oasis in the dry climate of southern Spain.


Asturias was a part of Spain not conquered by the Moors. Its simple style of art and architecture, with Byzantine and Visigothic influences, arose in the 800's and 900's. In the Christian capital of León, Mozarabic architects built churches using the basilican plan. The churches featured a wide central aisle, called a nave, and side aisles with lower roofs. The architects also used Byzantine columns and horseshoe arches. León artists made beautiful handpainted books, called illuminated manuscripts.

In Catalonia and Valencia, from about 1000, churches were built in the solid Romanesque style. They had thick walls, massive columns, and round arches. Catalonian Romanesque painting is lively and almost modern in design. It includes frescoes (paintings on plaster) on church walls and ceilings and panel paintings (paintings on wood) for the fronts of altars.

In the 1000's, millions of Christian pilgrims from all over Europe visited the tomb of St. James at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. Hotels and hospitals were established along the pilgrimage routes. Many churches were built. The churches often had French influence. But they also were built in local Romanesque styles, with influences from Mozarabic and, eventually, mudéjar art. An outstanding example is the church of San Martín in Frómista near Palencia. It became the model for many later buildings. Another is the interior of the great cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. Its exterior was rebuilt in the baroque style in the 1700's. León was an important center of Romanesque painting, which spread throughout Castile.


The Romanesque period lasted into the mid-1200's. At that time the Gothic style, which had originated in France, appeared in Spain. Gothic churches were taller and less heavy than Romanesque churches. They had pointed arches instead of rounded ones and thin columns that soared upward. Léon Cathedral was built from the late 1200's through the 1300's in an almost purely French manner. It has glorious stained-glass windows that fill the interior with beautifully colored light.

An even richer and more varied effect was achieved in the cathedral at Burgos. It was begun by an international team in the 1200's. But it was decorated in the 1400's. In its design, the cathedral follows the late French flamboyant (literally, "flame-like") style. It also incorporates the arabesques (curving designs) and lace-like carving of mudéjar art. This style of Spanish Gothic is often called Isabelline Gothic, after Queen Isabella. The Carthusian Monastery of Miraflores, near Burgos, decorated in the 1490's, has an Isabelline altarpiece designed by the French artist Gil de Siloe. In contrast, Gothic churches in Catalonia, Barcelona, seem elegantly streamlined. An example would be the church of Santa María del Mar,


The Renaissance began in Italy about 1400. Renaissance is a French word meaning "rebirth." The period was given this name because there was a rebirth of interest in the learning and the arts of the classical age of ancient Greece and Rome. Like the rest of Europe outside Italy, Spain was slow to adopt the new style in the 1400's.

During the reign (1474-1516) of Isabella and Ferdinand, the Isabelline Gothic mixed with a Renaissance style of architecture known as plateresque. It was called plateresque because its fine decoration resembled the work of silversmiths (plateros). Classical forms were used as well. Painting and sculpture from the 1400's and early 1500's also show a mix of influences. The work of Castilian painters shows heavy Flemish (Belgian) influence. This includes the work of the artist known as the Master of the Catholic Kings. In Aragón, Valencia, and Catalonia, Italian influence could also be found. But individual artists, such as Luis Dalmau of Valencia, were sent to study in Belgium.

After 1500, the Italian Renaissance became increasingly influential in Spain. Many noble families built their palaces in the new style. Italian influence continued throughout the 1500's during the reigns of Charles V and his son Philip II. Philip invited many Italian artists to decorate the Escorial (begun 1562). The Escorial is the huge palace-monastery at the foot of the Guadarrama mountains near Madrid. The plain, severely classical style of this vast building complex came to be called Herreran, after the principal architect, Juan de Herrera.

The late Renaissance style called mannerism was represented in Spain by the sculptor Alonso de Berruguete. It was also used by one of the greatest painters of all time, the Italian-trained Greek Domenikos Theotokopoulos. Domenikos Theotokopoulos was called El Greco in Spain. He used the elongated figures and crowded settings typical of mannerism. (An article on the Renaissance and a biography of El Greco can be found in this encyclopedia.)

The Golden Age

The period from about 1550 to 1700 in Spanish culture is called the Golden Age. At its outset, Spain was the most powerful country in Europe. And it was the ruler of the New World. Spain's political power slowly crumbled. But its artistic achievements reached a peak in the 1600's.

The Valencian painter Jusepe de Ribera spent his entire career in Italy. He often worked for the Spanish viceroys of Naples. They brought his paintings back to Spain. Ribera's works were painted in a style known as tenebrism. Tenebrism is characterized by strong contrasts of light and dark, in the manner of the Italian painter Caravaggio.

Diego Velázquez created realistic paintings that often represented complicated ideas. For example, his famous painting Las Meninas ("The Maids of Honor"; 1656) shows the young princess Margarita and her attendants visiting the studio of the artist in the royal palace. But the work also appears to comment on the artist's own position at court.

Francisco de Zurbarán specialized in religious subjects. He depicted them in an intensely reverent tenebrist manner. Bartolomé Murillo created religious paintings in the baroque style, filled with color and movement. His works include rich landscapes and breathtaking visions of heaven as well as quieter portraits and images of the Madonna.

Golden Age Spanish sculpture was often religious and made of painted wood. In many cases, the sculptures are still paraded through city streets during religious festivals. The sculptors--Juan Martinez Montañés, Alonso Cano, Pedro de Mena, Francisco Salzillo-- are little known outside Spain.

1700's and 1800's

In 1700, the Spanish throne passed to a Frenchman, Philip V, grandson of King Louis XIV of France. Spanish art entered several decades of uncertainty. French and Italian influences once again became very powerful in painting, sculpture, and furniture design. In architecture, however, Spain developed its own version of the late baroque style, called Churrigueresque after the architect José Churriguera. The retable, a structure behind the church altar, was a characteristic feature of Churrigueresque architecture. Sometimes spanning the entire width and height of the church, the retables were elaborately carved and gilded (covered with gold).


Many fine Spanish painters worked in the 1700's. But they are often forgotten beside one of the greatest Spanish artists of all time, Francisco Goya. Goya was born near Zaragossa in Aragón and trained in Italy before returning to work in Madrid. In 1792, a mysterious illness almost killed him. Thereafter, his works took on a darker and more emotional quality.

The Napoleonic wars (1808-14) affected Goya deeply. In 1810 he began his Disasters of War etchings. And he devoted one of his most important canvases, The Third of May, 1808 (1814), to the heroes of the Spanish resistance. From 1819 to 1823, Goya produced a series of fantastic wall paintings, now called the "Black Paintings," that look forward to modern art. (A biography of Goya appears in this encyclopedia.)

After Goya, much Spanish art of the 1800's seems bland, although there were artists of great achievement. Examples include Vicente López, the Madrazo family, Aureliano de Beruete, Mariano Fortuny, Emilio Sánchez Perrier, and Joaquín Sorolla.

The Modern Era

At the end of the 1800's, in Barcelona, a particularly active early modern group of artists and architects, including Antonio Gaudí, Ramón Casas, Isidro Nonell, and the young Pablo Picasso, began pushing Spanish art onto new ground. Picasso, along with fellow Spanish painters Joan Miró, Juan Gris, and Salvador Dalí, and the sculptor Julio González, went to Paris. There, Picasso and his French colleague Georges Braque created the abstract style called cubism. In cubism, an object is often shown from several different angles at the same time.

In the 1920's, Miró and Dalí became involved with the surrealist movement, which applied modern psychological theories to art. Dalí created unsettling dreamlike images in a sharply focused realistic manner. Miró is known for his brightly colored abstract paintings of fantastic imaginary worlds populated by make-believe creatures.

Many people feel that Picasso's greatest work is the large mural (wall painting) that he produced in 1937 to protest the bombing of the Basque village of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Guernica combines nightmarish images of suffering and destruction in a highly expressive cubist arrangement. Like the newsreels and newspapers of the era, the scene is depicted in black and white. It is as if the color had drained out along with the lives of the victims.

Spain continued to produce great artists after the war. But their freedom of expression was often limited by the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco (ruled 1939-75). Among the best known of the artists active from 1950 to the present is Antoni Tàpies, from Barcelona. His works are associated with the abstract expressionist movement in the United States. After Franco's death in 1975, Spanish modern art exploded into two decades of creativity, with older masters such as Miró, Tàpies, Antonio Saura, and Eduardo Chillida inspiring many younger artists.

Marcus B. Burke
Adjunct Professor of Religion and the Arts
Yale University

Help | Privacy Policy




(Separate multiple email addresses with commas)

Check this box to send yourself a copy of the email.


Scholastic respects your privacy. We do not retain or distribute lists of email addresses.